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Dear Guitar Hero: Danny Johnson discusses his time with Alcatrazz, Aerosmith, Steppenwolf, Alice Cooper and more

(Image credit: Stefan Georg)

He replaced Steve Vai in Alcatrazz, he was asked to replace Joe Perry in Aerosmith, he was friends with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Johnny Winter, he worked with Eddie Van Halen, and he played with artists including Rick Derringer, Alice Cooper, Rod Stewart and, most recently, Steppenwolf. But what GW readers really want to know is…

You’ve had the good fortune to play one of rock’s all-time-greatest songs – Born to Be Wild – hundreds of times onstage since joining Steppenwolf in 1994. What are some of your most memorable moments playing it? - Frank Kilauea

One time we were playing onstage to a crowd of 20,000 at Sturgis, one of the world’s biggest biker festivals. When we launched into Born to Be Wild, thousands of motorcycles started revving their engines at the same time, with dust flying everywhere. 

That song is the national anthem for bikers and Vietnam veterans. It’s an honor to play it. It’s a perfect rock song with a solid riff and hook, lyrics with attitude and a powerful vocal delivery. Its appearance on the soundtrack of the movie Easy Rider made Steppenwolf famous. Playing Born to Be Wild is far bigger than just playing another song in your set. It’s one of the most influential songs in pop-culture history.

You’re a bona fide unsung guitar hero. Does it irk you that even though you’ve played with loads of high-profile artists over the years, you’re not a household name in the guitar world? - Larry Sac

Playing great music, which I have done, is far more rewarding to me than being famous. There are many ways to look at success: the upshot is that it brings money and fame; the downside is there are many temptations, such as drugs and other indulgences, which can really mess you up at a young age. I’ve tasted fame, so I’m well aware of its pitfalls. It’s just not natural for someone at a young age to have millions of dollars and be known internationally.

How did Rick Derringer discover you when you were 18? - Frank Kihei

I was in Louisiana, where I was born, playing with Vinny Appice in a power trio called Axis in 1974, a few months before I joined Derringer’s band. My phone rings one day, and it was Derringer looking for Vinny. Rick wanted Vinny to come to New York to join a new band that he was forming. At the time, Derringer’s song, Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo, was a big hit. Vinny tells Rick that he should come down to Louisiana to hear Axis because the band is really good. So Rick comes down, and our manager picks him up at the airport, and we give him a private showcase. 

A couple days later I get a call from Rick’s manager; he said Rick loved my playing and wanted me to come to New York to join his new band, Derringer, so I got on the plane the next day and flew to New York. A limo picks me up at the airport and drives me to SIR [Studio Instrument Rentals rehearsal studio]. On the way there, I asked the driver to stop in front of the Empire State Building because I had never seen a building taller than four stories. I go into the audition with my 1956 Sunburst Gibson Les Paul Junior, and from that day on everything was great.

I attended Aerosmith’s concert at Madison Square Garden in 1976. The group you were in at the time, Derringer, was the opening act. What is your recollection of that show? - Steven Marks

It was one month before my 21st birthday, and I was playing the world’s most famous arena - what a kick! I remember it like it was yesterday. The dressing room was packed with famous folks including John Belushi, Johnny and Edgar Winter, Todd Rundgren, Hall & Oates, to name a few. I remember seeing Bebe Buell, Jerry Hall, Andy Warhol and Truman Capote at the show’s after-party. It was a night I will never forget!

In Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith, Brad Whitford says you were the best of the guitarists the band auditioned when they were looking to replace Joe Perry in 1979, but you ultimately didn’t get the gig. What happened? - Jesse Kailua

I got a call from Whitford when I was living in L.A. He told me they were having problems with Joe Perry and asked if I would like to fly to New York for a week and jam with the band to see if anything would come of it, and they would pay my expenses, so I agreed. We jammed at SIR every night. Like vampires, we slept all day and stayed up all night. I didn’t see daylight for a week! They tucked me in a five-star hotel and we dined in the finest restaurants. Around 7 p.m., we left the hotel for our first and only meal, crossing paths with businessmen going home from work in three-piece suits holding briefcases.

We’d go to one of their friend's place with a co-writer for the band, Richie Supa, and that’s where the dope showed up - mainly coke and pot. I didn’t ask questions. I was straight, which made Steven Tyler nervous. Initially, I thought, this is cool! But they were spiraling out of control. It was a dysfunctional situation. 

One night I went to Brad’s room with Tom [Hamilton] because they seemed to be in my corner. They called Tyler while I was in the room; I don’t think he knew I was listening. Brad told Steven, “Tom and I like Danny,” but Steven told them that my hair was too short. Tyler ultimately picked Jimmy Crespo since he had long hair and Steven thought he looked like Joe Perry. Plus, Crespo was a New Yorker. I think it was for the best. At that time in my life I didn’t need a vampire lifestyle. I wanted to stay focused and put all my energy into the guitar, and not get caught up in anything that could potentially drain the band.

Like vampires, we slept all day and stayed up all night. I didn’t see daylight for a week! They tucked me in a five-star hotel and we dined in the finest restaurants.

I understand you were friends with Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. How would you characterize your relationship with them? - Kevin Kennedy

I’d consider both of them friends. Rick Derringer introduced me to Johnny Winter when we were at SIR preparing for the recording of Derringer [1976], and Johnny and I spent time many fun times together over the years. When I first met him at SIR, Johnny and his band were rehearsing in the studio next to ours. During our break, I’d go listen to Johnny play and talk to him about guitar stuff, preferably before he finished drinking his bottle of whiskey. 

He told me he never used the treble pickup, but instead used the bass pickup and turned all the bass off the amp. That’s how he got the Johnny Winter sound. Johnny and I both grew up in the South, and we often shared stories about playing a lot of the same clubs, especially on the Bossier strip [in Louisiana]. He loved talking about the old days before he became a household name. 

I remember hanging out at Rick Derringer’s home with Mick Jagger, and a song that Johnny played comes on the radio - Silver Train, a Rolling Stones song. I said to Jagger, “Man, it must be cool hearing Johnny play your song on the radio!” Jagger smiled. Johnny Winter was the first white authentic Texas bluesman.

I met Stevie Ray Vaughan at a NAMM Show in Los Angeles in 1981, and we hit it off right away. At the time, Stevie was touring around the country in a van with a trio and playing any and everywhere he could. We were only a year apart in age and had the same primary influences - B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter - but he was more of a blues player than me. A couple of years later Stevie and I wound up with the same booking agency, and my band, Danny Johnson and the Bandits, got to open several shows for him. 

I said to Jagger, 'Man, it must be cool hearing Johnny play your song on the radio!' Jagger smiled.

He was on fire and at the top of his game. Stevie used to invite me on his tour bus to smoke pot with him. His female road manager was very thorough; she’d question me and look me over and make sure I didn’t bring any hard drugs aboard. She was trying to keep Stevie and [bassist] Tommy Shannon away from cocaine. I remember Stevie coming out and looking at my guitar rig at soundcheck - I did the same with his. He was using multiple amps - a Fender Twin, a Marshall and a small Leslie. The last time I saw Stevie was when my band opened for him in Shreveport on September 2, 1984, and I congratulated him on his success. I was devastated when I heard of his tragic death six years later.

Your playing on Alcatrazz’s third album, Dangerous Games [1986], replacing Steve Vai, is subdued yet superb. What was it like to follow in the fretsteps of Vai? - Jose Torres

Vai left Alcatrazz to form a supergroup and make an album with David Lee Roth [Eat 'Em and Smile, 1986]. I’m home in Louisiana and I get a call from a friend in L.A. He told me that Wendy Dio wanted me to come back to L.A. and join Alcatrazz, a band she just started to manage. I asked the band [led by former Rainbow vocalist Graham Bonnet], “Are you sure I’m your guy?” They said, “Yeah.” I had just seen the movie Crossroads, and Vai played the devil’s guitarist. I knew it would be difficult to step in those shoes, which were previously filled by Yngwie Malmsteen, who played on Alcatrazz’s first album [No Parole from Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1983]. 

It seemed the people at Capitol Records were tired of launching careers for guitar virtuosos and wanted a hit record; that’s why there’s not as much guitar playing on Dangerous Games. The bassist, Gary Shea, told me to play heavy guitar. I didn’t listen. He was right, but it was too late. Alcatrazz was an established guitar band, so the tour was dodgy. I mean, I’m a blues rocker trying to cop Berklee graduate Vai and neoclassical guitar god Malmsteen, so it drained my confidence. 

I remember one night the audience wanted more speed and tricks, so I grabbed a pitcher of beer and poured it over my body, and started jumping, spinning and playing as fast as I could, not even playing in time with the music, and the crowd went nuts. After the show Wendy comes over to me and says, “That was amazing!” I told her I did it in jest, and she said she wanted me to do it every night. Much of Eighties hard rock was a lot of smoke and mirrors. Sadly, Alcatrazz was my favorite band of that era and I contributed to its break-up.

Eddie Van Halen once said in Guitar Player that you were one of his favorite guitarists. Van Halen co-produced your first album with Private Life, Shadows, in 1988. Can you talk about how that group came together and how the two of you met? - Tim Hana

I met Eddie in 1979 shortly after moving from New York to Los Angeles, after I quit Derringer to reform Axis with Vinny Appice. I went to the Whiskey a Go Go to see Rick Derringer and meet my replacement, Neil Geraldo, which was right before he joined Pat Benatar. I went to Rick’s dressing room to say hello, and Eddie vas there; he was on top of the world, around the time of Van Halen II. He was a down-to-earth guy, and we hit it off. I didn’t see him again until ’87, when my girlfriend at the time, [vocalist] Kelly Breznik, was waiting for Eddie to feel comfortable about her band, Private Life. 

Ultimately, they asked me to write, play guitar and join the group - a great band with a lot of Fleetwood Mac–style drama. We did two albums for Warner Bros., a U.S. tour opening for Van Halen and three MTV videos. Eddie co-produced Shadows at his 5150 recording studio. He and I often hung out and chatted after everybody left to get ideas for the following day. I felt so privileged when he would pick up a guitar to play. I was amazed at how light he stuck the strings; he’d let the amp do the heavy lifting. 

I play straight-ahead with a pick, occasionally using my right hand for tricks on the neck, whereas Eddie played the guitar using all parts of his hands. I used to call him “monkey fingers” because of his unorthodox style - he is the Beethoven of rock guitar. At a show in Portland, Oregon, at the end of Private Life’s tour with Van Halen in 88, Eddie and his band invited me onstage to play the encore, My Generation.

You played arenas and stadiums with Rod Stewart in the early Eighties. What was it like playing in his band? - Mark Glaser

I joined Rod’s band in 1981, shortly after I finished Carmine Appice’s self-titled solo album. I’m proud to be the only guitarist to have played in bands with both Vinny and Carmine Appice! Carmine was playing drums for Rod. Carmine mentioned that I was a big help on his album, so Rod invited me to play the American Music Awards, hosted by Dick Clark, and we played Rod’s hit Passion. When I joined Rod’s band we went on tour playing major venues in the Far East, and when we returned, we started writing and rehearsing for Rod’s album Tonight I’m Yours - we worked on that record for months! 

Toward the end, the vibes were bad because Carmine and I were doing too many projects - I was recording with Alice Cooper, and both of us were playing sessions for Stevie Nicks. My playing ended up on just one Tonight I’m Yours track, Jealous. There was too much drinking going on and I wasn’t used to playing in a band with three guitarists. Carmine and I thought Rod should get back to working on stuff like he did in the Faces or the Jeff Beck Group instead of a bunch of sequencers and trendy stuff that was derivative of the Eighties. I soon realized no one cared about our ideas and we were outnumbered, so I told Rod that maybe things would be better for everybody if I moved on.

Steppenwolf frontman John Kay said in an interview in the Nineties that he had a heart-to-heart talk with you regarding your abuse of prescription pain pills, and he suggested you go to rehab. Can you elaborate? - Ron Smith

Like Eric Clapton and various other guitarists who have been playing for decades, I have degenerated discs in my spine. From the repetitive motion of playing guitar, which is a fairly heavy instrument, you start wearing out body parts - sort of like when the brakes on your car go metal to metal - so I fell into a habit of taking pain pills to ease the symptoms and make the pain tolerable. At times, prior to going onstage, I’d crush up an OxyContin tablet and snort it and then chase it down with a few shots of tequila. It was horrible, but it was the only way I could make it through the set with minimal agony. 

Unfortunately, when you mix pain meds with alcohol, it makes your playing sloppy. John Kay told me that he knew I was dealing with pain, but that I shouldn’t mix painkillers with alcohol. On his request, I went to rehab. These days, I still take pain meds to manage my discomfort, but I take a low dose and I haven’t had a drink since rehab.

What’s Danny Johnson up to in 2019, and what are your plans in the future? - Jason Jenkins

I’m excited about a new project I’m doing in Los Angeles called Monsters of Classic Rock, which includes former members of Quiet Riot, Great White, Survivor and White Lion. We'll be playing all the hits! I’m having a great time working with the guys and it’s been a while since I’ve been back in L.A. I’m also writing songs for a guitar-oriented album that will be reminiscent of my early days. 

In addition, I plan to write a book not only about my career on and off stage with some of the bigger groups and rock celebrities I worked with, but also the people I met along the way and the genres of music I saw come and go, like seeing punk rock basically born at CBGBs, hanging out with a 16-year-old Joan Jett, seeing the birth of heavy metal, the Austin music scene with Stevie Ray Vaughan, my encounters with Prince and Vanity - the list goes on and on. Before I was a contender, I was a fan, and I feel very blessed to still be active today. This interview only scratches the surface of my career, which will be detailed more completely in my book. Amen.

Your gutsy playing on Alice Cooper’s Special Forces [1981] bridges the gap between raw blues and metallic power. Can you take us back to the recording of that album? - John Luiggi

That was a busy time for me. I was working with Rod Stewart in the day and recording with Alice Cooper at night. Richard Podolor produced Special Forces; he is best known for producing Three Dog Night and many of the musical acts that came out of L.A. in the Sixties and Seventies. Podolor called me and asked if I wanted to do Alice’s album. I told him, “I don’t think I can, because I’m currently working with Rod Stewart.” Podolor asked me what time I finished with Rod, I told him, “late at night,” and he said, “perfect,” because Alice will use you after midnight. 

Whereas Rod’s sessions were fueled by alcohol, Alice was strung out on freebase cocaine at the time before eventually getting sober. I wouldn’t touch coke and drank moderately - I think that’s how I persevered. Alice put tinfoil over the windows of my guitar booth to black it out because his drug addiction made him paranoid. Special Forces is a good album, but I don’t think his record company liked it, because Alice didn’t want it to be radio-friendly. It was sort of Alice’s punk rock record.

I remember Alice telling me to turn my amp all the way up, not to play sitting down, not to play soulful, and if I played another blues lick there would be a death in my family! When in character, he was scary, but he’s really a perfect gentleman. He told me he had a split personality, like Bela Lugosi had Dracula. Alice says that today he has no recollection of recording this album.